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Security personnel patrol the Olympic Park at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games February 3, 2014. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Security personnel patrol the Olympic Park at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games February 3, 2014. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

Sochi prepares for unprecedented threat level Add to ...

The 2014 Winter Olympics were already dogged by image problems. And that was before Vladimir Putin cuddled a leopard.

The photo op was supposed to showcase how the Sochi Games – which have been harshly criticized by environmental groups because sporting venues and guest villas were built in what was previously a national park – are actually a positive for the region, with the Russian President promising to introduce spotted Persian leopards, like the one in his lap, to this subtropical corner of Russia after the Olympics are over.

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“Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of destroyed nature,” said Mr. Putin, who has risked much of his reputation on the success of Olympics that begin Friday.

But, like so much else in Sochi, the over-the-top photo op quickly went off-script. The leopard lashed out at reporters accompanying Mr. Putin, scratching one on the hand and biting another on the knee, according to Russian media.

It was par for the course in Sochi, a city that – despite repeated assurances from both the Kremlin and the International Olympic Committee – feels very unready, and a little unlucky, as athletes and spectators begin to arrive in this previously obscure resort on the Black Sea.

Guests in some hotels lacked running water, heat and light bulbs. Three of nine hotels in the Krasnaya Polyana resort that will host the mountain sports competitions were also unfinished as of Tuesday. The struggles are par for the course in the frantic days leading up to the Olympic openings. But they are amazing given the staggering amount of money – a reported $51-billion (more than seven times what Vancouver 2010 cost) – that has been spent since 2007 on getting Sochi ready for its big moment this week.

Hanging over everything is quiet paranoia about a possible terrorist attack, the threat of which has transformed Sochi into a fortress, guarded by some 70,000 soldiers and security personnel. Cars travelling the two roads connecting Sochi to the rest of the volatile North Caucasus region are stopped and searched at massive concrete checkpoints, and only cars with Sochi licence plates may pass. A camouflage-covered anti-aircraft battery has been set up on a hill overlooking the main Olympic venues.

Military speedboats patrol the city’s long coast while a trio of police helicopters buzzed in the air late into the night as fireworks exploded over the main Fisht Stadium during a rehearsal of Friday’s opening ceremony. The city’s new airport and train station are patrolled by police, private security and fully uniformed Cossacks, all on the lookout for Islamist militants believed to be intent on attacking the Games. Meanwhile, all 240,000 residents of the adjacent republic of Abkhazia – a breakaway region of Georgia that Russia claims to recognize as an independent country – has been sealed in for the duration of the Olympics. And that’s just the security that can be seen.

While Mr. Putin is determinedly trying to put a positive spin on things ahead of the opening ceremonies, there are loud whispers that the President is furious about the state and cost of Sochi. Things could yet get worse for him. Fears of an embarrassing political protest – perhaps against the Kremlin’s recent assault on gay rights – are such that known political dissidents and rights activists are being denied entry to the Olympic city even if they have already purchased tickets for an event.

The Sochi Olympics are also home to electronic surveillance on an epic scale. A document obtained by The Globe and Mail, and signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in November, orders telecommunications firms to provide Russia’s security services with “round-the-clock remote access” to the e-mails and phone calls of everyone in Sochi, including accredited participants.

Veterans of previous Olympics say the security, while obvious, wasn’t as intensive as in Salt Lake City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States. On the ground, there was airport-style security to get into the sporting venues, although procedures were applied erratically.

Some guests were subjected to intense physical pat-downs upon arrival, while others passed through completely unmolested. One bus between the coastal sites and the Krasnaya Polyana resort that will host the mountain events was stopped, and everybody on board was made to get off while the vehicle was inspected inside and out. But another bus went through the same checkpoint without pause.

Security experts believe the anxiety is justified given the unprecedented and specific threats to the Winter Games. Islamist militants based in the North Caucasus – parts of which remain a low-intensity war zone – have warned in a video message they have prepared a “present” for Mr. Putin and anyone attending the Olympics. Already, militants carried out a pair of December suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd, 700 kilometres from Sochi, which left 34 people dead.

“The security operation is spectacular … Sochi has always had a high level of security because it’s the second capital of Russia. Putin spends a lot of time there, so there’s a lot of surveillance networks and FSB [the Russian acronym for Federal Security Services] penetration there,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based expert on Russia’s military. He said it was likely that at least some of the bright-suited Olympic volunteers greeting guests as they arrive in Sochi this week were FSB operatives.

Mr. Felgenhauer said that even such a massive security operation “can’t prevent an attack by a planted terrorist cell that’s already in Sochi.”

Doku Umarov, head of the Caucasus Emirate group that has claimed responsibility for a long string of deadly attacks around Russia, has vowed to use “maximum force” against the Olympics. Russian security forces are specifically worried that as many as three female militants – so-called “black widows” whose husbands were killed battling Russian troops in Chechnya and Dagestan – may already be in the Sochi region and planning suicide attacks during the Games period.

He said the possibility that one or more militants were already in Sochi, a city of 343,000, was “sizable and real.” Sochi’s bloody history plays a role in the animosity. Until its 19th century capture by Russia, Sochi was the capital of Circassia, a semi-autonomous region within the Ottoman Empire, and populated by Turkic-speaking Muslims. Suspicious of their allegiances, Tsar Alexander II ordered an ethnic cleansing of the area that saw tens of thousands of Circassians killed and hundreds of thousands driven into exile.

Sochi was later repopulated by Russians, Cossacks and Armenians – all Orthodox Christians and loyal to the empire. While mainstream Circassian diaspora groups have denounced violent retaliation at the Sochi Olympics, Mr. Umarov – a Chechen – claims Sochi as part of his “emirate” and has said the Games are being held “on the bones of many, many Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea.”

Mr. Felgenhauer said that with Sochi locked down, he was personally worried that militants might choose to instead attack other, less heavily guarded, Russian cities during the Olympics, which run from Feb. 7 to 23.

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon